The Editor’s Notes is an opinion column allowing our writers to express their honest feelings about comic books, the comic book industry, and all that it inspires. The views expressed within belong solely to their author.
Last week, news broke that Robert Downey Jr. will joing the cast of the upcoming Captain America 3 in an adaptation of Marvel Comics’ Civil War storyline. At the same time, Marvel announced that Civil War – as well as a bunch of other big-name event comics from the past – would be back in some way. Fan response was mixed, but the announcement of more Civil War was particularly controversial.
Returning to Civil War is an understandable move from Marvel. Civil War was a hugely influential event, raking in huge sales for Marvel and making an impact on the Marvel Universe – both in it and outside of it. It’s also natural to want to bring such an event to the big screen, especially since some fans have been clamoring for it for years. But there’s a problem with bringing back Civil War – to the page or to film – which is that it is now and has always been indefensibly terrible.
Civil War is easily one of the worst series of the past ten years, and if not for Identity Crisis, it would be my nomination for the worst event comic of all time. It’s terrible on its own merits and within the greater context of the superhero genre it is active poison. Civil War had no right being published in 2006 and it has no right being remembered now as anything more than a waste of time and paper.
Civil War on Its Own Merits
On its own merits – void of context and its tie-ins – Civil War is atrocious. It’s a badly-told and grossly mishandled story. A common praise of Civil War is that it was the first event comic in a long time that felt like a real event. This is a bad argument for just about anything. Speaking from my own examples, I don’t argue in favor of Siege because it feels like an event comic, I argue in favor of Siege because I found it a satisfying climax and conclusion to years-long depression and in-fighting that started with Avengers: Disassembled. Civil War being a good event comic because large, bombastic things happen in it is like saying showing up for class makes you a good student. It doesn’t, it just makes you a present student: fulfilling the mandatory minimum requirements for being a student. Civil War is like a student that shows up for class but instead of turning in their homework, throws up on your dog.
Furthermore, what exists of its story and the characterization in it is just terrible. This is a quote from the seventh season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (a show about a bunch of peoples’ misadventures while being horrible to each other and everyone else):
“You’re escalating shit. We immediately escalate everything to a 10. It’s ridiculous. I mean, somebody comes in with a preposterous plan or idea, and then suddenly everybody’s on the gas, nobody’s on the brakes. Nobody’s thinking. Everybody’s just talking over each other with one idiotic idea after another until finally, we find ourselves in a situation where we’ve broken into somebody’s house and the homeowner is home!”
It is also a perfect summation of Civil War: a bunch of jerks immediately escalate a situation that did not call for it for no good reason until finally they arrive in a situation where Iron Man has cloned Thor and thrown his colleagues into internment camps.
One of the things most apparent to me during a read through of Civil War is that there really is no story. There is, however, a seven-issue-long succession of shocking twists and jerk moves. Kids die! Cap flees Maria Hill and SHIELD! Spider-Man unmasks himself for no good reason! Tony tricks his friends into fighting in a giant brawl where oh no! Thor is alive! Only it’s not really Thor, it’s a Thor-borg and it just killed Z-list reserve Avenger, Bill Foster! Also, Tony just recruited Taskmaster, Bullseye, Venom, and a bunch of other complete psychopaths to corral his friends! In response, Punisher joins Cap’s team! Then he’s off Cap’s team! Then they fight and Steve quits and goes to jail and gets shot in a much better comic and Tony wins.
There is no buildup of conflict in this story. The fight just escalates from zero to 120 in the blink of and eye and keeps going from there. There could have been a great story about the slippery slope, and how good ideals can be so easily corrupted with an ends-justify-the-means mentality, until eventually you’re more of a monster than what you wanted to fight. But the thing about a slippery slope is that you have to slip down it, not gleefully leap to the very end and stay there.
A great recent example was in BOOM! Studio’s Suicide Risk #5. In that stand-alone issue, an abused, depressed wife gets reality-altering superpowers. She uses her powers to: give her ailing mother-in-law a home and access to better medical care, make sure her daughter is happy by forcing her boyfriend to marry her, take bloody vengeance upon her exploitative boss and cheating ex-husband, and finally take over a drug cartel and become a powerful, feared crime lord. All of that is done and done perfectly in the span of one issue. Civil War couldn’t get a tenth of that in seven, and it didn’t even try to either.
There’s no attempt at slippery slope in Civil War. Tony immediately goes from “we need public accountability” to “and I will hunt down all who defy the law by any means necessary.” Steve gets a slightly better turn where he realizes he’s no longer fighting for a principle of civil liberties and tradition and all that good stuff, he’s just stubbornly fighting.
But it’s frankly impossible to view Steve’s surrender as anything less than disingenuous. Civil War tries to spin some ‘fair and balanced’ nonsense with Dr. Strange’s view that there is no right or wrong side, just perspective. This is false, because the pro-registration side is wrong. Not because superhero registration is wrong, but because it is impossible to support an effort that grows more and more fascistic and murderous by the second. It’s like #GamerGate, in a way. Even if you do just want games journalism reform, you cannot support #GamerGate because the people behind that movement are horrible misogynists smoke-screening an anti-woman agenda with wails for ethical journalism. In Civil War there’s a right side and a wrong side, and the right side is the one that didn’t clone a dead man for crowd control.
Nevermind that Tony would never clone his dead friend for such a terrible reason, because this brings us to the other problem. Civil War has a huge issue with its characterization because first of all – again, much like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – everyone is a jerk. Steve is a stubborn jerk, but he’s easier to root for because he’s not pulling what Tony Stark is pulling. But beyond that, none of our heroes – save Peter and Sue – act like real human beings. There are never moments of question or doubt that would give needed pathos and humanity to what is otherwise a nonsensical idiot plot conflict.
Tony, Reed, et al never question even their methods, goals, or their own personal costs after Bill Foster – a man the story keeps telling me is their friend – dies at their hands? Why don’t Tony and Steve – two men who have been among each others’ best friends for years – have at least one genuine, heartfelt talk before it all goes to hell, or even after? Why don’t they try to reach each other? It’s all just keep calm and carry on, and it’s absurd and unbelievable.
And don’t tell me “It happens in the tie-in comics!” because that boils down to “the only good things in Civil War happen outside of Civil War.” The pro-registration can’t only be humanized outside of the main event because it’s outside the main event. And even then, for every ‘river of truth’ speech there’s Sally Floyd telling Steve he’s out of touch with America because he doesn’t get MySpace. You know who else doesn’t get MySpace? Me, a real person, in 2014, because it is – to borrow from Chris “MightyGodKing” Bird’s brilliant and brutal takedown, cultural flotsam. It’s not important and never was. I don’t know why there wasn’t any editorial consistency, but it just serves to make Civil War even worse because the tie-ins – made to compliment and further the characters – can’t begin to save them or anything else about this stupid event.
So there you go. Civil War is a rotten seven-issue mess of jerks being jerks to other jerks for jerk reasons. That would be enough to dismiss Civil War, but no, there’s more to why Civil War is just the worst and it goes beyond the event and into its context within the superhero comics genre.
Civil War in Meta Narrative
The Superhuman Registration Act is poison. It’s poison and Civil War is poison to the entire narrative of superhero comics. First, because you don’t support the pro-registration side. Even if you want a superhuman registration act and public accountability for superheroes, no you don’t. What you and I and everyone else want is to see Captain America throw Baron Zemo through a building.
Superhero comics are power fantasies from start to finish. They’re ridiculous, they’re absurd, they’re fantastical. The Marvel Universe exists in a way that reedy little Steve Rogers took a super soldier serum to make him the peak human so he could fight Hitler and the vampire Nazis that – per Longshot Saves the Marvel Universe – are literally the reason why he wears body armor. What the Superhuman Registration Act wants to do is take away the absurd power fantasy that is the blood and bones of the genre so superheroes could report to the government and have public identities and carry badges like cops – because God knows if there’s a group of people who are notorious for being held publicly accountable for wrongdoings, it’s the police!
The SRA and Civil War desire for superheroes to behave as they would in real life. It accuses superheroes of being bad because they are reckless and unnecessarily and spectacularly violent. But again, superheroes are power fantasies. Claiming that superheroes are bad because vigilante justice is bad is like the Tumblr crowd and John Green claiming Batman is très problématique because instead of fighting poverty he dresses up as Dracula and beats up the mentally ill. Do you know why he does that? Because Charitable Donation Comics, wherein we thrill as billionaire Bruce Wayne cuts checks for twenty-two pages a month, is boring.
If the Marvel Universe was reality, yes to conscription and registration! Yes all the way! But it’s not reality. It’s a fantastical made-up world where a purple planet eater pops up periodically and that is not the weirdest thing to happen. You can’t just lazily copy and paste real world politics and concerns about security versus liberty and gun control and whatever else Civil War was allegedly a metaphor about and expect it to work. Real world politics are not always applicable to a world where Baron Blood exists. It would be absurd if a man decided to end crime as a bat in the real world, and it is absurd to try to reign in the good Samaritans who fight the good fight with insurance and liability concerns.
And besides, which is a better story: Peter Parker, Certified Public Super-Crime Respondent, very carefully and with controlled methods subdues Doctor Octopus and hands him over to the authorities for a lengthy trial by his peers, or Spider-Man knocks Doctor Octopus through some windows? Which inspires more catharsis, more power and more comfort despite your (and my, and everyone’s) very real inability to make a true lasting change against the crime and corruption that pervades and destroys our society?
It’s the one where he throws Doc Ock through the windows.
And Civil War isn’t just poison to the power fantasy core of the genre, it’s poison to something far deeper and more important: it’s the death of pure altruism. Janet van Dyne says in issue one that the SRA would effectively make superheroes civil servants, and correctly pins it as ridiculous. But she doesn’t say why it is ridiculous. It’s because they aren’t civil servants, they’re superheroes. But they’re superheroes not because of their powers or skill sets. They’re superheroes because of what they choose to do with them.
A fireman saving a child from a burning building is heroic. A civilian doing the same is immeasurably more heroic because they have no ostensible reason to do so other than concern for their fellow man. That’s what a hero is: a person who is gifted with the opportunity to do good and does so. A hero is a hero because of choice. Steve Rogers’ inspiration comes from choice. He chose to enlist when he didn’t have to. Tony Stark chose to become Iron Man when he didn’t have to. Peter Parker chose to become Spider-Man when he didn’t have to.
Civil servantry makes it their nine to five. It takes away the inspiration and the heroism associated with pure goodness. Again, which is better: Peter Parker saves people because it’s his job, or Peter Parker saves people because even though he can barely make ends meet and this adds unnecessary and impractical stress to his life, he does it because people need him and it’s the right thing to do?
Some good came out of Civil War. To list just two personal examples: The Death of Captain America and the subsequent Buckycap stories in Captain America were terrific, and while J. Michael Straczynski’s Thor has its detractors, I have yet to meet anyone who disliked its third issue, which directly dealt with Thor’s anger at Tony for his actions during Civil War.
But on its own terms, Civil War is a hot mess. It’s a bad excuse for a story, it’s anathema to its genre, and worst of all it didn’t have to be. Civil War has workable ideas buried deep underneath the Mark Millar of it all, and in better, not-Millar hands it could have been a poignant story. But it wasn’t. It was a disaster – for Tony Stark and Peter Parker in particular. Tony had to have his brain rebooted to pre-Civil War mode because he had become too unlikable and the movie had just come out. And as for Peter, well, his unmasking lead to Aunt May getting shot, which was the start of One More Day. For all of its sins, enabling One More Day is possibly Civil War‘s worst.
But it also made a lot of money, so revivals are inevitable. While any Civil War movie will by necessity have to be a loose adaptation, I think the looser the better. So here are my suggestions:
Instead of fighting in Captain America: Civil War, Steve, Tony, and their respective supporting casts get blasted and play a rousing and tense game of True American for two hours. Instead of adapting Civil War per expectations, Marvel could film a live action version of MightyGodKing’s I Don’t Need Your Civil War. Or they could just scrap the project all together and make a Nextwave movie. That team knew what was up.
Looking back, what do you think of Civil War and its impact on the Marvel universe? Are you pleased to hear it’ll serve as the inspiration for Captain America 3? Let us hear from you in the comments below! But please, keep it civil.